Anthony Bourdain may be known for pithy, curmudgeonly one-liners but when he’s passionate, he becomes a fountain of admiration.
Ahead of the season 11 premiere of “Parts Unknown” on CNN this Sunday night, the chef-turned-tv-host delivered a soliloquy on cinema, specifically the relationship between film, travel and his show. In less than one minute, he referenced the films of Wong Kar-wai, extolled the visual effects of “deliberately crappy filmstock” and compared the cinematic styles of Pasolini and Bertolucci.
Despite beginning his television career as a culinary emissary, Bourdain’s Emmy and Peabody award-winning show has become a creative convergence for some of the world’s coolest directors, cinematographers and musicians — in addition to the legendary chefs that have always populated the episodes.
Bourdain confirmed it was a conscious decision to explore the world through more than its food. When filming an episode of his previous series “No Reservations” in Beirut in 2006, “reality intruded onto the scene in such a profound and violent way that it just seemed obscene from that point on to focus only on the food,” Bourdain told Travel + Leisure, referencing the 34-day Lebanon War. “Fortunately, CNN has allowed me the freedom to do that. I don’t have to put food in at all, which is nice.”
Now, instead of focusing solely on culinary destinations, producers choose locations from a list of “places that I’ve always wanted to go and haven’t been able to go or places where I’d like to look at it from a completely different perspective,” Bourdain explained.
After selecting the destinations, Bourdain will meet with directors to discuss inspiration and aesthetic (sometimes they’ll assign a “required viewing” movie list for the show’s camera crew).
“That’s honestly the fun part, when we sitting around talking about what we want this show to look like and sound like,” Bourdain said. “Often I’ll have an idea ahead of time, a general stylistic jumping off point — that always comes from me — but other times I don’t know yet.”
Take, for example, this season’s Hong Kong episode (airing on June 3), which Bourdain refers to as a highlight of his professional career.
The episode’s original intent was to follow cinematographer Christopher Doyle — the director of photography behind legendary films “In the Mood For Love” and “Chungking Express” — through Hong Kong, something Bourdain said he had been wanting to do for years.
But the episode’s director dropped out two days before shooting due to emergency gallbladder surgery. Bourdain’s girlfriend, Italian director, actress and activist Asia Argento, filled in as a last-minute replacement.
They had hoped to just shoot a few minutes of footage of Doyle around Hong Kong. But, to Bourdain’s delight, the legendary cinematographer befriended both the host and Argento, grabbed a camera and shot most of the episode himself, completely changing the look of the show.
“I thought we might have been doing one thing but by the time we got there, we very much adapted in marvelous new ways,” Bourdain explained.
Looking as close to giddy as Bourdain-ly possible, he said “I had to pinch myself. Christopher Doyle shot my crappy little show.”
It’s this creative camaraderie that Bourdain seems to crave. “If I can collaborate with people I always looked up to and really admired, that’s fun.”
This spirit extends to the sounds of his show. A long-time music devotee (his father was an executive at Columbia Records), Bourdain aims to reflect the spirit of each unique location in the show’s soundtrack.
For each episode, musical director Michael Ruffino will produce an original score “written and performed for each show, specifically for that show” or he “will reach out to local bands and either get rights to their existing music or ask them to compose something,” Bourdain explained.
But sometimes, Bourdain can usurp the musical director and get a major name to contribute their songs. He said that “rock‘n’roll music nerds will go crazy” for this season’s Berlin episode, featuring Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Other high-profile creative appearances in season 11 include Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down, who leads Bourdain around Armenia, and director Darren Aronofsky, who joins in a voyage across Bhutan.
The new season starts in West Virginia — or as Bourdain puts it, “the heart of god, guns, Trump and football.” Viewers will also see Bourdain will celebrate Mardi Gras in Cajun Louisiana, throw axes in the wilds of Newfoundland and order steak at a drive-thru in Uruguay.
These made-for-TV moments are deliberate choices. After 15 years on television, Bourdain now sees destinations through the lens of his show. He appreciates a location when “I look over at the camera guys and I know they’re getting good stuff,” he said.
But, for however jaded he may describe himself after traveling all over the world and seeing “a lot of beautiful views,” Bourdain hasn’t lost appreciation for a self-aware moment in a far-off land.
His best travel memories as those when he is sitting with crew, “having a drink, looking out at the world and feeling pretty lucky about our situation,” he said.
“You know, when we get one of those moments where we’re all looking over the empty quarter at night and there’s a full moon in the desert ... that’s what makes it special.”
And, of course, he mentions the food. Anthony Bourdain has a reputation to uphold, after all.